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Primary and Secondary Sources

Some assignments require students to distinguish between primary and secondary sources of information. This guide is intended to help you learn how to make this distinction, and offer tips about how to find the right kind of sources for your assignment.

What is a Primary Source?

Primary sources are documents that reflect the direct, first-hand experience of the author. Primary sources may be an original creative work, an eyewitness account of a historical event, an interview with someone speaking about their personal experiences, or even an original research study with data about the personal experiences of the participants. Examples of primary sources are novels, poems, plays, diaries, letters, memoirs, speeches, and first-hand reports of events from newspapers or news magazines.

What is a Secondary Source?

Secondary sources provide analysis or interpretation of information from documents created by other authors. Secondary sources may be a critical analysis of a novel, poem, or play; a journal article or book that uses information from many different sources; or a documentary film or radio program. Each of these sources is a step removed from personal, first-hand experience.

How Do I Find Primary Sources?

Over the years, millions of primary sources have been published in books, journals, newspapers, and other publications. These sources can be found by using the UHD Library Catalog, library databases, or library catalogs from other libraries. Start with an author search if you want novels, poems, plays, or creative works by a particular author. For primary sources on a topic, consider a keyword search using one of these search terms: sources, correspondence, personal narratives, or speeches.

These strategies can also be used to find primary sources on the Internet. To find novels, poems, or plays by a particular author, start with the advanced search in Google Book Search or visit the Online Book Page to search for free online books by author. For primary sources on a topic, use search engines like INFOMINE and OAIster that use the same controlled indexing as library catalogs and databases. Then try searches with the terms sources, correspondence, personal narratives, or speeches.

These examples from the UHD Library Catalog show how keyword searches can be used to find primary sources:

Digital Libraries and Museums

Many primary sources are available in online collections sponsored by libraries or museums. Here are some examples:

Books, primary documents, images, sound, and video from the Library of Congress. (Full-text).

Archive of speeches, documents, and statistics. (Full-text).

Free Web site with famous speeches in audio, video, or text formats. (Streaming media).

Documents in law, history, and diplomacy from 1600 to the present. (Full-text).

Links to hundreds of digitized medieval manuscripts available on the Web. (Full-text).

The Federalist Papers, records of the Constitutional Convention, and other historical documents. (Full-text).

Current video and audio clips, plus historical archives of political speeches and events. (Full-text).

Texts and oral histories relating "Southern history, literature, and culture." (Full-text).

Videos clips of historic events and campaign ads. (Full-text).

Historic documents of Europe from antiquity to modern times. (Full-text).

Selected oral histories from UT San Antonio. (Streaming media).

Links to transcriptions of primary sources documents. (Internet links).

U.S. Congressional publications such as bills, hearings, speeches, and voting records.(Full-text).

Presidential campaign commercials from 1952 to 2008. (Full-text).

Links to primary source documents in Texas history. (Internet links).

Historic photographs from the collections of the New York Public Library. (Digital images).

The African American experience in primary source documents, images, and maps. (Full-text and images).

Search for historical documents, images, and sound recordings. (Internet links).

Biographies of each president with links to documents and papers. (Internet links).

Official messages, statements, and speeches. (Full-text).

Oral histories of 77 Tejanos and Tejanas on life in post-World War II Texas. (Streaming media).

Search for photographs, maps, letters, books, artifacts, and other primary documents. (Internet links).

Search information about 35,000 voyages in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. (Full-text).

Houston area historic photographs. (Images).

A monthly magazine that publishes important public speeches. (Full-text).

Interviews with former slaves from the Archive of Folk Culture collections. (Streaming media).

The official site includes speeches and public statements. (Full-text).

Links to images, photographs, manuscripts, books, maps, and more from around the world.

Short life histories of average Americans made for WPA programs from 1936 to 1940. (Full-text).

How Do I Find Secondary Sources?

The UHD Library Catalog and library databases offer thousands of secondary sources. For most topics, start with a keyword search. See the Keyword Searching guide for details about this technique. For secondary sources about an author, a person, or a creative work (novel, poem, play, etc.), it may help to limit your search to the subject of each document. Here is an example:

Select subject from the advanced keyword search drop-down menu.

 

 

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W.I. Dykes Library • University of Houston-Downtown
One Main Street • Houston, Texas 77002
Information 713-221-8187 • Circulation 713-221-8186

 

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Last updated or reviewed on 4/2/10

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